How to Build Communities
Mike Rizzo is the founder of MO Pros®, one of the most popular communities for marketing operations professionals. “All we do is talk shop about marketing ops pretty much all day long,” which is how Mike meets many marketing operations professionals, including our own Camela Thompson.When it comes to building communities, Mike knows a thing or two. So, what kind of mindset should a company have when thinking about starting one?
“The mindset should definitely be a very similar approach to the one that you have when thinking about your SEO strategy. You need to put in the work, you need to put in the research, you need to hire the right talent, and then you need to wait for the results.
“It is a long game, and game might not be the right word for it, but you do have to put in the effort and expect that you cannot make a one-to-one correlation for your revenue growth or your lack of churn or your upsell capabilities, all because of effort that you put into SEO or community building for that matter. But it’s important. And it’s a core capability of your go to market strategy.
“If you want to be seen as a thought leader, community building and SEO have a lot of parallels to one another in that regard. If you build a community, you’re building it for the purpose of creating value. Right. And so your mindset needs to be value creation first.”
Beyond having the right mindset, it’s also important to know that communities aren’t just a set it and forget type deal. They require quite a bit of thought and planning, too. What should companies be thinking about when building a community?
“It comes down to who’s it for, and it’s a little bit of the why, which is an easy blanket statement to say. If you really dive into sort of what happens in the community building landscape, there is a lot of very meta content in the world on this topic. There are communities for community builders and there are a lot of community experts and thought leaders out there.
When building a community, there isn’t just a one size fits all approach. But, there are multiple models out there to help give you ideas on shaping yours. Mike’s favorite is the SPACES model, which helps you align your goals for the community with the services or benefits it provides for your audience.
“The SPACES model is an acronym that stands for Support, Product, Acquisition, Contribution, and Engagement, or Success. Each one of those have a very different flavor of the type of content that you’re producing and why you’re producing the community to begin with.”
Different communities have different goals, and with the SPACES model, it’s easier to identify what type of action or benefit you want to gain from your community. Mike explains a few.
“So just for the sake of example, a product-oriented community is intended for gathering feedback and insight from your members to improve product offerings. If you’re very purposeful in that mission, and you’re very clear and transparent about it, then that’s okay. People understand what they’re getting there.
“But if you’re all about maybe just contribution, for example, you are thinking about increasing the successful contributions of content or code to a collaborative platform so everybody can learn together. Think like Github.
“And so that’s a very different mission, right? You’re trying to encourage people to come back and provide more content and more resources for the greater good, which means the way you architect your community environment, whether that’s hosted in a forum or on a website or on some sort of community cloud product out there, you might pick one of those platforms very specifically because it helps you support whatever it is that you’re trying to do.”But each community isn’t going to be the best home base for everyone in your industry. Different roles have different needs, and they gather around different ideas, content, and topics. MO Pros®, likewise, isn’t the only marketing operations platform out there.
“I say the same thing about communities in general, like MO Pros® isn’t necessarily a place for everyone. You might be a marketing operations professional, but you might enjoy the vibe of an entirely different community that is still tangentially connected to your role. But each community’s gonna have a different flavor and a different feel and that’s okay. You need to find your place and your people and you know, if that’s us, great, if that’s somebody else, great.
“Getting back to that idea of, you know, if you focused your podcast on a way to try to elevate somebody to an executive status or something like that. Something that really helps people find that path. And I think if you’re an organization thinking about community building or creating content that has authenticity to it, sometimes it’s about what your organization is passionate about.
“Maybe that’s being a thought leader, but sometimes you don’t know. So I will tell you that, when I was in a previous role, I was asked to build the very first community they’d had and the client advisory board program. And I went into it just with no idea. I had to go talk to all of the customers about what they want, what does a successful community look like to you? And you wanna go build community, build it with your community. Ask them.
“And if you don’t have an opinion, it’s okay to come to the table and offer an opinion and say, does that resonate? Does that jive? Is there something we’re not thinking about? But oftentimes you may not even have that, and it’s okay to go ask. That’s what I encourage a lot of community builders to do is just to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know the answer to this.’ See what people want and then go build that. And that’s true for product, right? Like when you’re building an actual product, that’s how product builders build a product.
“So that’s the other analogy I can draw is building a community is no different than building a startup, like a SaaS product. You have a hunch, you want to validate that hunch, put it into the market early and quickly, fail fast, and iterate and improve. Do that alongside your customers the whole way through, and you’re gonna create a product that people actually wanna adopt.
“All this makes it sound like I had this grand vision in mind and I definitely did not. I started this community back in my day just purely selfishly for myself, because I was super alone in my role. And then it grew from there.”
Making Community Ops Your Career
Finding an untapped area of opportunity can be hard. Sometimes it’s easy. But, if you find that you’re not alone in your loneliness or your thinking, then you can build up a community around that.But how does community building turn into a full-time gig?
“It was about a year ago, almost. I was afforded the opportunity to go focus on it full time. It’s where my passion is really at the end of the day. Like I love marketing operations in MarTech and I didn’t realize that through all of my sort of entrepreneurial endeavors that I had lightly tackled in my life, that they were all very community oriented.
“A good example of that is I had this idea, too, but the short version is one of ’em was called ProductFeedback.io – it sounds exactly like what it was for, and that’s to bring people together and provide product feedback. Because they kept asking me for my opinions on their product, I thought, there’s gotta be other people who wanna do this.
“And then the other one was called Millennia, and it was a way to tell stories of successful millennials. So I wanted to pull together millennials and tell their success stories – we’re not all lazy, right? No, we do work hard. And I thought, gosh, I guess I really do like community stuff. And so about a year ago I said, yeah, this is my jam. I love marketing technology and marketing operations. And I am really passionate about community building. So I’m gonna go focus on it.”
MO Pros® was borne from loneliness, and our inherent need to connect with other humans, especially in the workplace. It’s an island for marketing operations professionals, so they can share what’s happening in their world with others like them.
“The reason I started this Slack channel that we all have today is purely about how do I tell somebody what I’m working on and how do I learn from what they’re working on? Because I don’t want to recreate the wheel every single time I go do this, and I certainly do not want to have to recreate the wheel when I step into a new org and have to take over a product that somebody already kind of implemented.”
By having a community, there’s easier avenues to share best practices, meaning there’s less confusion when it comes to changing roles and companies.
“I would rather have systems in place that I understand and there’s a common knowledge. I think at its core, when you see how much a marketing op person enjoys documentation and really adhering to process and naming conventions and all the things that make me get a smile on my face, as in, ‘Ooh, naming conventions,’ that’s great.
“I’m in, right? All of that stuff at its core comes down to: we want to make it easy to scale, we want to make it effective and efficient, and we want to be able to walk away from the role. I mean, heaven forbid if any one of us got hit by a bus, right? Someone ideally would be able to pick up and hopefully keep things moving and not have a delay in how long it would take them to get around the top.
“So of course, knowledge sharing is a core component of that. And I think that the community thrives from that sort of core persona type that seems to be prevalent throughout the experts in the field, so to speak.”
If you’re looking to break into community building, what are some of the roles and functions that people should be looking out for?
“I think being a community builder is definitely a mixed bag of content creator, go to market strategist, a really good communicator, and project manager. As well as just kind of a, for lack of a better term, a sales person, right? You do have to be marketing and selling the value to people every day.
“I will say what’s nice about building community is that if it has a very clear value and purpose, again, falling back on this idea of transparency and why you want it to exist. The whole ‘selling’ bit is a lot easier. People just understand right out the gate, okay, this is either for me or it’s not for me.
“So the roles you need to be thinking of are definitely project management as number one, for sure. Because as soon as you come up with a bunch of campaign ideas for how to bring people together and have really good, valuable conversations, whether that’s a go to market effort or just purely a community engagement strategy, managing that project and all of the different line items that go into it as you go to scale…You will fail if you don’t have good time management.”
Another important part of running a successful community is setting rules for the space. Oftentimes, that can feel like being a parent driving a van full of kids. You have to constantly monitor what’s happening and be able to pull the van over and leave folks on the side of the highway.
So, how does Mike handle policing his community?
“I kicked out a founder of a company that was acquired only in the last couple months. But back in the day they popped in and he just was spamming something in there. And I said, ‘God, you know, I’m sorry that I have to make you the example, but I literally have to go delete your thing and then give you the boot. We can talk later if you want to have an organic conversation with the community, there’s healthy ways to do that, but you can’t come in and spam.
“People will tell the organizers they want to feel that their community is a safe place for open collaboration. And it’s important to make sure that you’re on top of the moderation stuff, especially as a team of one, like myself. But when I first got this thing going, you really have to be on top of the moderation stuff, and that takes practice.
“I don’t like saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ I don’t want to be a mean person. But at the end of the day, what you’re doing is you’re protecting the value of this organization and the values that everybody else knows that you’ve written down. So they expect you to do that. And by being protective of them, you’re being protective of the sort of sanity of what becomes the community. So yeah, you definitely have to be on top of moderation.”
Community Ops and the Greater Go To Market Team
As more companies begin building communities, Community Ops is becoming more and more of a thing within operations functions. But where should communities be rolling up within an organization?
“It is really a big topic to think about, just as marketing ops tends to have its relationships across the organization from sales to partners and you name it. Community building, you can imagine, will actually have almost more.
“To just to paint a picture for a second, when I was running that initial community program at that SaaS company, I had inputs from the knowledge team, which was one team of itself. The product team, which was a totally different team. The client success org, the marketing org, and the support team. There were five literal different teams with different leadership, all having input on what this thing should become.“In that case at the time, the function of community building rolled into client success and eventually went into marketing. Community Ops, I do think is a new frontier. It is absolutely looking at the data layers that come in from community building, especially when you think about a B2B SaaS organization who is building maybe a support-oriented community that’s to help reduce churn, reduce tickets, and increase the connectivity between their customers so they can learn from one another.”
There’s not just one clear pathway forward. The needs of a community are more complex than just one business function – but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked.
“So you need a way to build the right tools. Everything from an enterprise search product that allows you to index all of your content that’s coming into the community. And how does that information get distributed back to a client success organization and enable them to have more educated conversations around the problems that their key accounts are experiencing from the forum side, not the ticketing side?
“How do you take the learnings that are happening in the knowledge base, or in the forum itself and apply that back to help articles and the knowledge base, so you can reduce churn because you’re giving people what they need faster?
“The function of Community Ops, time will tell where it falls. I think it is gonna fall into different departments in different organizations, much like a community will as a kind of community manager, so to speak, would fall into different parts of the organization.
“I think being able to look at the data layers that come into a community building function needs to have a lens of marketing as well, which is why I think there’s a possibility we will see these Marketing Ops folks kind of advising the possible on someone who’s more community oriented who enjoys the strategic program creation components of it, and being able to say, ‘Hey, we need to be able to find all of our champions and then enable them to lead sessions on how to better educate the market about our tool or the problems in the market, or what have you.’
“So that’s somebody who’s creating a program with a strategic vision, but then they’re saying, I also need that information to pass through to these systems and to store it in a way that’s usable in the future so that we can find more members like them, so that we can find more clients like them.
“There’s going to be this very beautiful and natural crossover between what happens in a Marketing Ops function and what happens in a Community Ops function where I’m trying to enable this go to market strategy bit for the community. I also need to be able to send emails, is that Marketo? Is that HubSpot? How do I do that? You know, so it’s happening, we’re seeing it.
“But I’m working with other thought leaders in the space to say, how do we figure out what Community Ops is? How do we create the sort of definition of that? How does Marketing Ops help support the definition of what becomes Community Ops? Because I think there’s a lot to learn from an industry like Marketing Ops, that’s been around for a long time, not that long, but certainly longer than Community Ops.”
With all this talk of ops, it’s important to broach the subject of Revenue Operations, too. Especially when there’s large projects that impact multiple functions.
“I think the standout leaders that are building rev orgs are creating an umbrella that includes Client Success, Sales, and Marketing Ops. You know, with all those sort of analytics capabilities, a part of that team as well. And a lot of that comes down to the visibility of, ‘what are you doing?’ I think a clear example of this is, ‘Hey, a really big customer is about to come on board and they’re gonna onboard hundreds of thousands of users.’ And so the Client Success org knows this, because they did this amazing upsell or whatever.
“But oh, by the way, when those all get dropped into our Salesforce org, they’re gonna get synced over to my Marketo or my HubSpot or what have you. And if you don’t have a room full of your ops people talking about this thing that’s about to happen, that marketing ops person is going to say, ‘Whoa, our database just got flooded with hundreds of thousands of users. What happened?’”
Keeping everyone in the loop is vital to overall success as a revenue organization. Mike supports RevOps, but he also makes valid critiques.
“I’m very passionate about [RevOps] too, but I think it’s largely still sales focused. It’s super unfortunate. And maybe just to add into this idea of going back into the community building topic, there was an organization formally known as MOCA. Which stood for Marketing Operations Cross Country Alliance. It was a nonprofit organization that was turned into the Growth Ops Community more recently. And that was led by a friend of mine. And what it talks about is why Growth Ops is a better way to think about, not that we all need yet another term to go with, but a better mindset.”
For more ways to create communities that scale, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.